Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer was a unique genre potpourri in which sports films, The Matrix, and science fiction animés all irreverently coalesced into a frantically funny tale of victorious underdogs. The filmmaker's signature cartoon craziness - an idiosyncratic mixture of Buster Keaton's physical comedy and Dragonball Z's lunatic action - likewise permeates Kung Fu Hustle, a similarly ridiculous medley of gangster pictures, musicals, and martial arts films. A period piece about a 1940s-era Shanghai village forced to defend itself from the oppressive mobster outfit, The Axe Gang, Chow's latest is not quite as infectiously hilarious as its predecessor. Yet this tour de force compensates for a shortage of belly laughs with an astute portrait of mid-20th century social inequality, as well as an exuberant momentum, its kinetic slapstick amplifying with each subsequent fight scene until, with its building-smashing finale, it reaches a crescendo of absurd insanity that would make even Jackie Chan gasp.
Kung Fu Hustle (written by Chow, Tsang Kan Cheong, Xin Huo, and Chan Man Keung) follows despondent wannabe gangsters Sing (Chow) and Brother Sum (Kwok Kuen Chan) - two inept bunglers with dreams of criminal fame and fortune - as their attempts to impress the Axe Gang bring chaos to the working-class town of Pig Sty. There, a screaming landlady (Qiu Yuen) and her licentious husband (Wah Yuen) maintain order and obedience with an iron fist. However, after the arrival of the Axe Gang - a group of suit-wearing toughs whose leader (Hsiao Liang) likes to orchestrate choreographed line dances after killing his adversaries - the town's landlords, as well as three seemingly ordinary men, reveal themselves to be superpowered kung fu masters. What ensues is inventive, frenzied combat of the fantastical variety, highlighted by a Wachowski-esque battle involving innumerable (and identical looking) Axe Gang members swarming Pig Sty's enclosed courtyard for a chance to vanquish the unretired martial arts heroes. Throughout such visually hectic set pieces, Chow's direction proves a model of efficiency, presenting every special effects-enhanced roundhouse kick, aerial jump and flaming fireball with a lucidity that allows for spatial coherence. Assured and exhilarating, the filmmaker's dynamic staging and blocking allows him to stretch the boundaries of his confiding frame, culminating in a high-flying, earth-shattering climax that virtually leaps off the screen.
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